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Or just call it the New Obama Constitution.
(Page 4 of 4)
What does it take to become a stakeholder in our new constitution, and what does it yield? Consider the Service Employees International Union. Andy Stern, its president, said, “We spent a fortune to elect Barack Obama—$60.7 million to be exact—and we’re proud of it.” Stern claimed that he hired people who “knocked on 1.87 million doors, made 4.4 million phone calls, and sent more than 2.5 million pieces of mail in support of Obama.” He had borrowed some 20 of those millions. But he is reaping fabulous returns on his investment.
The union has 2 million dues-paying members whom Stern and his associates got, according to the Los Angeles Times, by forceful or fraudulent takeover of locals as well as by bribery and intimidation. But Stern is now a stakeholder in just about any matter he chooses. Most visibly, on April 15, 2009, his lawyer and lobbyist were part of an administration virtual “round table” that decided to withhold $6.8 billion of “stimulus money” appropriated for the state of California unless the state restored a $7.4 million (1.4 percent) cut it made in one of its programs, which happens to be serviced by Stern’s union. Surprised, California secretary of health and human services Kim Belshe said, “The involvement of a stakeholder in this kind of state-federal deliberative process is unusual at best…outside any norm I am familiar with.” Alas, this sort of thing is becoming the new rule.
One corollary of that rule is that powerful stakeholders like the SEIU can help turn former opponents into new stakeholders. Thus when President Obama said, wryly and proudly, that even Wal-Mart was supporting his health care plan—the very Wal-Mart that the Democratic Party had demonized for its resistance to unionization—he was in fact acknowledging yet another debt to the SEIU. Stern’s union, along with liberal groups, had so harassed Wal-Mart that it agreed, in exchange for peace, to endorse the Obama health plan’s requirement that employers provide health insurance or pay the government 8 percent of gross income. Not incidentally, if the plan became law, Wal-Mart would be insulated against potential competitors who did not offer health insurance.
Whereas the big banks, GM, and Chrysler became stakeholders by accepting partnership with the Democratic Party and the United Auto Workers union, and the SEIU did it by brute force and money, even as Wal-Mart was forced into an auxiliary role, an outfit by the name of Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society did it by presenting the administration with a plan for a single electronic registry of all American health care records. The company had tried to sell its plan to Congress as a cost-saving measure. But it then realized that the plan would help the Obama administration grasp the whole of the U.S. health care system in order to impose its priorities on it. Hence, HIMSS got a $36.5 billon contract, for starters. Its money and its status as a stakeholder came from pure lobbying and networking with vendors and customers, who saw opportunity in the administration’s proclivities.
In sum, in America as elsewhere, stakeholder government grows by its essential internal dynamic: the more the rulers’ power grows over more matters, the greater the incentives of people to do whatever they can to become stakeholders.
Where does stakeholder government hit those of us who are part of the general public? Consider colonoscopies. In May 2009, after consultation with stakeholders, Medicare proposed no longer paying for the electronic, noninvasive, “virtual” kind, and only for the kind that involves insertions into your colon. The makers of the electronic equipment for the virtual ones disputed this immediately. What will and will not go up your colon depends on to which part of the industry the money will go. Under our new constitution such questions, regardless of how important to you they may be, are reserved for stakeholders.
Hence it is poignant to read William Greider, an enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s New Foundation, expressing shock in the Nation about its results. Greider wrote that Obama’s actions had taught people such as himself “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide.”
Greider continued, “If the largest bank holding companies are given privileged proximity to the source of government protection, then everyone in finance and commerce will want to become a bank holding company, too. We are already seeing this happening as former investment houses like Goldman Sachs and non-bank financial firms decide to join the system. Why not General Electric and Microsoft? Where does this end? What does it mean for smaller enterprises that lack the scale and influence?” He concluded, “Government and politics would become even more responsive to big money, but also able to tamper intimately with private enterprise, picking winners and losers based on political loyalties, not on performance.”
Why should Greider or anyone else have expected that government, especially one made up of bankers and bank regulators, would not have plenty of money for them? Why should anyone expect that a government that has the United Auto Workers as a constituency, or that wants to harness the auto industry or the energy industry to its plans, would not pay to support and shape them according to its vision? Why should anyone expect that persons who watch government dispense privilege to its supporters and enablers would not want to pay the price to join their ranks? Why be surprised that the bigger the government, the bigger a friend it is to those connected with it, and the more indifferent to the unconnected? It would be just as unreasonable to expect water to flow uphill.
Nor does it make sense, under this genus of constitutions, to rue the substitution of political loyalty for performance, because in these constitutions, political loyalty is the only kind of performance that counts.
What’s It to Us?
THE MORAL BASIS OF OUR “New Foundation” consists of the desire that many have to support it, whatever it might be. For many, the will to affirm collective action is much less a matter of ideology than of eagerness to escape what they experience as a meaningless America. Thus in an influential 1997 Wall Street Journal article, prominent neoconservatives William Kristol and David Brooks regretted that so many Americans had chosen to elect Republicans who pledged to get government off their backs. “Wishing to be left alone is not a government doctrine,” they wrote. They argued for government that would lead America to “a grand destiny,” to “national greatness.” What would that look like? Candidly, Brooks explained elsewhere, “It almost doesn’t matter what task government sets for itself as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness…. Energetic government is good for its own sake. It raises the sight of the individual. It strengthens common bonds. It boosts national pride. It continues the great national project.” Italians, Argentineans, Mexicans, and others are familiar with such pseudospiritual summonses to what the French intellectual bureaucrat Jean-Marie Guéhenno calls “religions without God.”
Adherence to the regime’s official truths and refusal to challenge their moral substance is a prerequisite for working within the system wherever political loyalty also becomes the measure of cultural, spiritual matters, whether in the European Union, in 1920s Italy, 1950s Argentina, in Obamaland, or in PRI Mexico. In practice, however, such moral bases of government are but thin cover over the raw trade of privilege for power.
Moreover, in America as elsewhere, while giving lip service to official truths enhances one’s self-image, actually taking them as moral authority is another matter. In this regard, the moral basis of our “New Foundation” is emptier and engages hearts less than that of Mussolini’s Italy, Juan Perón’s Argentina, and Mexico’s PRI’s dinosaurs. Encouraging people to think of themselves as saviors of Planet Earth by driving small cars is thin stuff by comparison with images of glorious Rome, of saintly Evita, of the great Montezuma. Our New Foundation requires either habituating oneself to be enraptured by empty words, or getting used to swallowing questions that naturally come to mind (e.g., how can the world be burning up when the last decade has been colder than the previous?), or uttering official lies. In sum, if you are not a stakeholder—and odds are you won’t be, can’t be—the Stakeholder Constitution will impoverish you morally as well as materially.
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